Go Back

Car Racing
May 2003

Castroneves's Thrill Is Back

It seems appropriate that Brazilian racecar driver Hélio
Castroneves, whose exuberant fence climbing after victories has
infused 'the mother of all Indianapolis Racing League events'
with a new level of excitement, should lead another Brazilian charge.

Phillip Wagner

The sun has rarely been as reliable or consistent at the Indianapolis 500 in consecutive classics, as were Brazilian racecar drivers in 2001 and 2002. But will the sun and/or the Brazilians shine again this year? Five Brazilians shattered expectations by finishing among the top-seven drivers two years ago when Hélio Castroneves took his first checkered flag at the famed 'Brickyard'. And last year Bruno Junqueira, Tony Kanaan and Gil de Ferran all joined eventual repeat winner Castroneves in leading that race at one time or another.

Although only De Ferran joined Castroneves among the top-ten finishers in 2002, Brazilians accounted for a total of 7 out of the 20 top places (10 each year) at Indianapolis in the 85th and 86th installments (35 percent). Missing from each of those 'honor rolls' are Airton Dare and Raul Boesel. The now-retired long-time Indianapolis 500 veteran Raul Boesel from Curitiba (now in São Paulo) ran as high as 7th in 2002 and finished 16th in 2000. Dare, who competed in each of the last two years, finished 13th in 2002.

It seems appropriate that Hélio Castroneves, whose exuberant fence climbing after victories has infused 'the mother of all Indianapolis Racing League events' with a new level of excitement, should lead another Brazilian charge. Castroneves faced a bevy of reporters during a noon hour break from open testing. "When you get here on that Sunday, the Sunday of the race" Castroneves told a reporter last Wednesday, "and you see the 500,000 fans in the stands … and you go into the first corner in the start … you think, 'Oh my god everything is different here' … its an incredible feeling". I guess that's why they call it the 'greatest spectacle in racing'.

Cameras flashed and microphones nudged each other aside as Hélio responded to questions on pit row not far from where legend Mario Andretti was also answering questions. "Its difficult to describe" Hélio said. "It's such an amazing place; it's the tradition of this place that calls attention to everyone. When you're here in the paddock, in the pits, they show the history of this place ... you can't stop dreaming about (it)".

I guess we can forgive the two time defending champion, a good looking eligible bachelor with a classic Brazilian accent, for feeling a little intoxicated. At only 27 he's already trying to three-peat in one of international sports most challenging and heart-pounding competitions at racing's most hallowed venue.

"This place is very tricky" he continued. "You know you always have to watch those flags on the top of the pagoda. You always have to keep watching the wind because a sudden wind change might cost you a new car. You always have to pay attention and never underestimate this place. You have to respect it." Infusing humor with Brazilian bravado he turned to a New Zealand television crew and added, with a smile and a twinkle in his eye "Hey guys. Sorry, but it's gonna be a three-peat, so, it's not gonna be (New Zealander) Scott Dixon. But maybe it will be number two for him". Scott Dixon would do well to finish even second though. The 22 year-old, who will be making his debut appearance at Indy and who recently underwent surgery for a broken wrist still plans to race. But finishing so high as a 22 year-old rookie with a broken wrist would be asking a lot.

After the media crush / one on one with Hélio

As the media melted away Hélio and I began walking together toward his Team Penske garage. I was asking him about the struggle for Formula Indy to get attention in Brazil. "Indy car in Brazil, Formula Indy, it's basically the same (oval) we're running right now. Indy became popular when Emerson (Fittipaldi) started winning … (when he) won the Indianapolis 500 in 1989. Before that I don't think Brazilians were very familiar with that". Yes, I acknowledged, but doesn't the popularity of Formula One have something to do with it too? "I do think Brazilians have a tradition of Formula One" he responded. "For so many years there were so many great Brazilian drivers (that) were champions … that kept the focus in Formula One. But not only that … the broadcasting of Formula One … they were given more support than Indy … that's why it's such a big difference in Formula One than in the Indy car". I asked if he meant that was because media giant O Globo sponsors Formula One. "Yes," he said, "exactly, absolutely. You hit the nail on the head".

"I came here in 1996," Hélio offered. "I was living in Columbus, Ohio, racing for Tasman Motor Sports. They're based over there. I stayed there for one year and, actually, the cold weather was too strong for me. Basically, I am from Brazil with tropical weather, as you know, so I decided to go to Miami. And since then I live in Miami, where I live right now. I enjoy it because a lot of Brazilians are living there. So it's pretty good".

I asked how often he gets back to Brazil. "Oh, not much. It's like three, four times a year. I'm from São Paulo (city). I was born in São Paulo, but I was raised in the countryside in a place called Ribeirão Preto, which is translation for 'black stream'. I'm from the redneck country," he said with a smile "lets put it this way". For the curious, Ribeirão Preto is north/northwest of Americana and Campinas, about 150 miles from São Paulo city.

I asked if Hélio believed that the Brazilian drivers at Indianapolis were becoming a great source of pride for Brazilians here in the U.S. "Well, it's for sure," he responded. "But first of all I would say that the American people and American country give us a great opportunity and that's priceless, you know, to come over here to work hard and be recognized with all the fans, all the media, everyone. So it's very nice to have a chance to exhibit our skills. I feel great to be over here. And sometimes I even look to my country and I say 'look, they like me more over here'. But I understand the thing about the media, as you just mentioned". Is Hélio recognized in Brazil? "No, not at all, not like here. It's nice to be in a place that they will welcome you, and for sure in America they do".

Relative to the U.S., Hélio acknowledged the growing problem of violence in Brazilian cities. "Brazil has a lot of violence problems and unfortunately that's the bad thing in our country right now. It's just a shame. São Paulo has constantly been that way. Rio I remember was up and down. At one point it was like extremely stupid and then it got like the military police and the violence came down". I suggested that might have been in the mid-1990s when Rio was trying to secure an Olympic bid. "That's right. That's right," he said. "That's what happened. Now we're back again because of those drug dealers and whatever. So it's not good".

I asked Hélio if he didn't think that maybe it was long overdue for a South American nation, and specifically Brazil, to host an Olympics, noting that either Rio or São Paulo would again soon be put forward as a candidate by the Brazil Olympic Committee. "For sure, if we put everything together. We do have the potential. We're capable to do that. We Brazilians are warm and can welcome anyone into our country. I'm sure it would be a good thing, as long as they (the authorities), obviously, can make it very secure and safe. I see no problem to do that".

"I drive, but she steers"

I asked Hélio if he had brought any of his family over here. "My sister Katiucia is working with me and she is not only working with me, but she takes care of all my finances. She's a fantastic person, she's my right arm, both arms, she's a great person and I'm very happy to have her here with me".

Twenty-nine-year-old Katiucia Castroneves joined her charismatic brother in 1992, when he began what track mavens call 'open wheel' racing with Vauxhall (Brazilian Formula Chevrolet). Her financial management credentials stem from receiving a Business Administration degree from São Paulo's University Fundação Armando Alvarez Penteado (FAAP). In actual fact, Katiucia is more versatile than her degree might seem to imply. She wears many hats in support of Hélio's career: management, financial, marketing etc.

According to Hélio, "Katiucia is my biggest fan, and was never against my decision to be a race car driver. She is always there to support me, and she attends almost all of my races. The funniest thing is when something happens, (for example when there is) a mechanical problem. Then she gets really upset and talks with everybody on the team. She always worries about me, and always wants to know that everything is fine with me, that I am eating well etc. I like to say that I drive, but she steers".

Interview Interrupted / talking with Tony Kanaan

When Hélio had to answer a cell phone call and slip away for a time into the garage I encountered his fellow Brazilian and good friend Tony Kanaan coming out of an adjacent garage. His left wrist was broken when he crashed at the Japan 300 on April 13th, and his injuries included a laceration in one thigh that required 10 stitches to close. I asked Tony if he'd be healed in time for this year's 500. "I'm out for qualifying, but I'll be back in the race for sure. Hopefully Mario (Andretti) will do it for me (qualify Tony's car) and will do a good job and then I'll take it from there".

That, at least was the thinking before Mario pulled a 'flying Wallenda' by flipping the car three or four times in an airborne test run accident that caused him to reconsider his potential role. Michael Andretti is owner of the Team Green-Andretti racing team that Tony drives for and had asked his 63 year-old father, an icon at the track, to qualify Tony's car.

"I'm from the same place in Brazil as Hélio," Tony commented. "We raced together for a long time. We were teammates when we came to the United States in 1996. I won the Indy Lights championship in 1997 and Hélio finished second. We both went to Champ (CART) cars in 1998, and then he moved up to IRL a year before I did".

Does he see any of the other Brazilian drivers regularly? "Yeah, they all live in Miami, so I see them all in Miami: Hélio, Gil (De Ferran), all of them". I asked if he knew Raul Boesel, who had long been a favorite of mine. "Yeah. He's a good friend, but he moved back to Brazil". To Curitiba, I asked, from where he originated? "No, he's living in São Paulo now". I asked how often Tony gets back to Brazil. "Four times a year, five times a year". And is he recognized in Brazil? "Yeah. I mean, we obviously have a lot of Brazilian racecar drivers. But yeah, people know who I am. We're competing against F1 but I think it's only gonna get better, as long as we keep winning races and try to bring (more of) the Brazilian race car drivers up … I think it might get a little more interest (in Brazil)".

I mentioned the notable success of Brazilian drivers the past couple of years and asked Tony if he believed it was generating more respect for Brazilians in the Indy car circuit. "We have a pretty good reputation about having good race car drivers just because that's the nature of Brazilian drivers in motor sports. But, obviously, everybody wants to be a race car driver over there". Over the last couple of years, when he's gone back to Brazil, has Tony noticed that the drivers here have gotten a little more notoriety? "I think they (Brazilians) just got to know the series a little bit better. I mean, they always knew us. Indy was something new but obviously now they're getting more into it."

Back to Hélio Castroneves

Shortly after Tony had to excuse himself, Hélio reappeared and we continued our earlier conversation. We returned to the subject of Hélio's family, which I discovered consists only of himself, his 29 year-old sister and his parents. I asked if he sees himself going back to Brazil when he's done racing. "Yes, but I sometimes wish not to, to be honest. I wish not because I really love this country and I enjoy to be here. But, obviously, my background, my family and everyone, my friends, are from there. I see my family a lot, my parents come here for a month and I go there, and then they come here for another month. I get to see them a lot and we're very attached. But my point is, I feel so much involved here, I feel so comfortable here that I wish to stay here. But, unless I marry an American… then maybe I will stay here". He continued: "Looking at all the Brazilian drivers: Emerson (Fittipaldi), Nelson Piquet, Raul Boesel, everyone, basically went back to Brazil after they were done racing. So I believe that's what I will do".

Just a regular guy

I wondered if Hélio missed Brazilian food and music. "I do miss my mom's food actually". So, does Hélio's mother make a 'mean' feijoada? "I really don't eat pork and I don't eat red meat" he said. "I do eat chicken Milanese, which is a pasta dish. And I do miss the rice and beans sometimes". What about music? "I like more the Carnaval, Ivete Sangalo, Daniela Mercury. I have a lot of Brazilian favorites, but I don't have a specific one". Thinking back to my conversation with Tony (Kannan) I asked again about Hélio being able to travel in Brazil without being recognized. "In Brazil I'm just a regular guy and even here when I know somebody it's the same way, I treat them the same way. I've always been very down to earth. Not only that, but I've been a fan once. I know what it's like to be wanting to get an autograph or take a picture of someone".

I related personal experiences I'd had with people like Marisa Monte and Hans Stern that led me to conclude Brazilian celebrities are special in the way they interact so warmly with people. "Well, it is a way that we try to be," said Hélio. "We know how tough it is in the background. Nothing came easy for me. I had to work hard. In anything in life if you work hard you can achieve it".

Early family life and racing roots

What was Hélio's childhood like? What did his father do for a living? "My father used to be a businessman. Now he is retired, but he used to be a businessman selling plumbing and pipes in Brazil. And actually that's what got me into racing, his business helped me a lot in most of my career in the beginning. Without him I wouldn't be here today. My family was very supportive and the good news today is that I am able to return it back".

I related how Tony (Kanaan) mentioned to me that they'd arrived in the United States as teammates. I asked if they had been racing together in Brazil. "We raced in go-karts. Not only with him, but also with Felipe Giaffone and Bruno Junqueira. Yeah, we were racing together like since we were 13, 14 years old". Go-kart racing in Brazil must be a big deal, I said, because I knew that (Raul) Boesel had gotten his start go-kart racing in Curitiba. "It's big in Brazil," said Hélio. "It's a kind of school for beginning race drivers, and for sure it's the best way to learn, and obviously the cheaper way and the safer way".

Do a lot of people attend go-kart races in Brazil? "A lot of people, yes". I asked if they competed in different cities. "Yes" he replied. "For me it was normally in the state, you know São Paulo state. But we did have like a Brazilian national championship that involved everyone from all of Brazil". In fact, Castroneves won the Brazilian National go-kart Championship in both 1989 and 1991. "And even I went to the World (Cup) Series in Italy," he said. There he finished fourth.

From go-karts to IRL

So how did Hélio and Tony progress from go-kart racing to IRL? "I went to Vauxhall, or formula Chevrolet, which is like formula Ford, and then onto Formula 3 in (Brazil and) England. Its just a learning curve from go-karts to the Brazilian Vauxhall, to Formula 3, to Indy Lights (or, now, Pro Series), to CART and IRL". Hélio's father was his primary source of financial backing until he signed with Formula 3. That happened in 1993, after Castroneves finished second in his only year competing in the Brazilian Vauxhall series. Hélio got plenty of attention in 1995 when he raced in the British Formula 3 Championship Series and finished in the top-ten six times. For the two-preceding years he'd competed in the Brazilian Formula 3 Championship Series, finishing second overall each year.

The now defunct Indy Lights (variously spelled 'Lites' by some sources) series used to sponsor a test in Phoenix, inviting 5 or 6 Brazilian drivers and an additional 4 or 5 drivers from other Latin American countries. Marlboro, one of Hélio's Formula 3 sponsors [Hélio now drives for Marlboro Team Penske] asked him if he would mind testing for Indy Lights. "Formula 3 cars at that time were like 200 horsepower", said Tony "and Indy Lights (comparable to what is now called the Pro Series) was like 400 horsepower. So I said yeah, because I wanted to try more horsepower. At that time there were only two seats (openings) available and Tony and I did well and were selected. And that's where my career started in America".

That was in 1996. Hélio competed in Indy Lights for two years, earning four victories and finishing second overall in 1997 (behind Tony Kanaan) by the narrowest ever margin in series history. Since jumping to CART in 1998, Hélio has continued to build on his impressive career performance totals, most notably with his back-to-back Indianapolis 500 victories in 2001 and 2002.

Looking ahead to this year's race

How are things looking for the Brazilians in 2003 at Indianapolis? And, having come so far in such a short time, how does Hélio feel about his own chances? On balance, Brazilians are facing greater challenges this year. Thirty-five-year-old Gil de Ferran, a three-time starter in the Indianapolis 500, suffered a concussion and some broken vertebrae in a Phoenix CART race on March 23rd. The Championship Auto Racing Team, or CART, broke away from the Indy Racing League several years ago and now competes with it - but in recent years has also rejoined the fray at Indianapolis.

De Ferran is two-time CART Series champion. It isn't clear to me that Gil will still be able to run in this year's 500. Tony Kanaan, of course, is also injured. But Tony, who is second in IRL points this season, has already been fitted with a brace and test-driven a go-kart to confirm that his wrist injury won't prevent him from participating. Raul Boesel, as previously noted, is now retired.

So is Castroneves feeling any pressure as two-time defending champion at Indianapolis? Is H┘lio feeling any pressure to defend Brazilian pride in the face of injuries to Brazilian drivers and their depleted ranks? If he is, he wasn't showing it. "I'm enjoying every second of this place," he insisted. "This place is so incredible, and I feel such a blessed person to be in the position that I am". I wondered aloud though, if H┘lio understood how blessed the whole Indy series family must feel to have him carrying the Indy 500 championship banner, because he shows so much enthusiasm, which is so incredible.

"Well, I'm an emotional guy" he said. "Everybody knows that. I really enjoy what I do so it's not really work; it's a pleasure. And, not only that. I'm sure any person would like to be in my shoes. When I wake up in the morning I say 'thank you, God' to make me who I am. But I also am stressful sometimes, nervous. I'm a human being. But I just try to express my good feelings, and that's why I want to win the race. It's not easy to win a race, it's a lot of hard work × but it's not only this moment. I remember how tough it was to get here and so that's why I just enjoy every second".

I asked Hélio about what he recalled about the finish in that first year when he won, when he was nearing the very end of the race. Was he just waiting for something to go wrong? Seeing Mario Andretti earlier had reminded me of the hard-luck that had befallen many great drivers at the last possible moment. "I just saw the number 2 back markers on the last lap and I thought 'you gotta be kidding me'," he said. "And there I was on the last lap having Gil (De Ferran) right behind me. I almost couldn't believe it was happening".

So, kidding to the New Zealand TV crew aside, is Hélio ready to predict anything for the 87th running of the Indianapolis 500? Hélio responded: "I wish I had a crystal ball you know. What I'm gonna predict is I will do my best. I have a fantastic team to be working with, and I'm gonna enjoy every second again".

Phillip Wagner is a regular contributor to Brazzil. Other of his articles, including his accounts of each of the two previous Indianapolis 500 races, may be viewed at his web site at http://www.iei.net/~pwagner/brazilhome.htm by selecting them using the select bar in the left frame. So many other of his articles covering a broad range of topics from the music industry to land reform. Phillip's Brazil site is extensive and includes Brazilian recipes, photographs of Rio and São Paulo, information on social programs serving favelados in Bahia, and more. The author can be reached at pwagner@iei.net





Send yourcomments to Brazzil

To Top / Go Back